B is for Beating The Double Bind

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Have you ever been in a double bind? This is a situation in which – no matter what you do – you seem bound to lose.

Double binds cause great pain in the family and at work. Here are some suggestions for overcoming such situations.

You can recognise the double bind

A child used as a pawn between rowing parents, for example, will feel they cannot win. Here is the worse case scenario in a divorce.

The mother says to the child: “If you love me more than your father, come to me.”

The father says: “If you love me more than your mother, come to me.”

The child has an impossible choice. Showing favour to one parent will incur the wrath of the other.

Both options are painful. Retreating into their private world is often their only salvation.

Double binds also occur in our relationships at work. A strong signal that you are entering such territory is when you feel a knot in your stomach.

Something happened – either between you and a manager, in a meeting, or elsewhere – which makes you feel uneasy.

Examining the situation in detail, you find that you have been placed in a position where, whatever you do, you are bound to lose.

Some people even put themselves in double binds. For example, they use 50% of their energy thinking of a positive way forward in their lives.

They then employ the other 50% knocking it down by worrying about what can go wrong.

Confusing? Yes, but some people experience this inner dialogue. This becomes debilitating.

The first step is to recognise the double bind. Simply giving a name to it puts the situation outside yourself. You are not to blame and can move onto the next step.


You can do your best
to beat the double bind

Clear contracting is the best way to untangle the double bind. Start by contracting with yourself.

You can do three things. You can clarify:

The things you can and can’t control in the situation.

The things you therefore do and don’t want to do in the situation.

The action plan you want to follow for going forward.

Imagine that you normally spend Christmas holidays with difficult parents. Looking back on previous festive visits, they start well, then lapse into boredom.

September arrives and your parents will phone any day, inviting you for two weeks.

Prepare your reply: “I am happy to come for two days. Then my partner and I are going to take a break overseas in the sunshine.”

“But I have already ordered the turkey,” may be the response.

Stand firm. Tough perhaps, but it is one way to move forward in the relationship.

Imagine a difficult professional situation, perhaps working at a desk next to a negative colleague. They are addicted to misery and are constantly whinging.

If you remain quiet, you get depressed.

If you ask them to stop moaning, they say: “Aren’t I allowed to express my feelings?”

You can try to make clear contracts with them about how you would like them to behave in the future and outline the benefits.

Sometimes this approach works, but frequently it doesn’t. The people causing the pain are not open to win-wins. They are stuck in win-lose or lose-lose.

How to act in such situations? One approach is to follow the steps mentioned above.

Clarify what you can and can’t control.

Clarify what you do and don’t want to do.

Clarify what you want to do going forward.

It may not be possible to solve everything straight away. When in doubt, however, choose the route forward that will, in the long term, cause you the least pain.

You can then follow your own agenda, rather than that of others. Eventually you will find that you can spot and avoid double binds.


Today many people experience difficulties with the challenges of life.  Some people work through these challenges by themselves, some do so with friends. Some want help but do not know where to turn.

Many organisations across the world are now providing services that offer people support. Such organisations also offer practical tools that people can use to shape their future lives.

The Better Help website in the United States provides such a service. Its mission is:

To make professional counselling accessible, affordable, convenient – so anyone who struggles with life’s challenges can get help, anytime, anywhere. 

Here is a link to a piece on their website that provides ideas about to how to not let things bother you


You can discover more about Better Help via the following link.


You can recognise potential
future double binds

Survivors develop the radar to spot double binds when these appear on the horizon. They recognise that avoiding such pain can save lots of energy.

For example, you may apply for a manager’s job and be given the message:

“This is a great opportunity to show your leadership skills. There are many bright people in the team, but they come across as cynical.

“The last 3 managers failed to motivate them and, as a result, the team didn’t reach its targets. The company is trying to save money and it is not an option to make these people redundant.

“So this will be a good test of your motivational skills.”

Watch out. This is a classic no-win. Make a clear contract with yourself about what you do and don’t want to do.

Then make clear contracts with other people. Some may be addicted to double binds, but that does not mean you need to fall into the trap.

Do everything possible to set-up situations that give you – and other people – the greatest chance of success.

Try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation where you may experience a double bind.

Describe the specific factors that mean that, whatever you do, you are likely to lose.

Describe the specific steps you can take to beat the double bind.

Prevention is better than cure. Spot the potential double binds ahead of time. You can then, wherever possible, set up situations to succeed.

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